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Georges Méliès and the studios of Montreuil

Georges Méliès was born in Paris in 1861 into a family of luxury shoemakers, rue Meslay. He studied at the Imperial high school in Vanves, then at the Louis le Grand high school in Paris. After having learned the profession of mechanic, then having practiced that of magician, he is in turn producer, director, screenwriter, decorator, machinist and actor. He created the first French film studio in Montreuil.

Méliès, magician and illusionist

Georges MélièsAfter his baccalaureate, and while he wanted to become a painter, Georges Méliès worked for a time in the shoe factory of his father, Jean Louis Stanislas Méliès, who made him learn the trade of mechanic then sent him to work in England to study their language.

Salesman in the corset supply department in the London clothing store of a friend of his father, he took advantage of his stay in London to try his hand at prestidigitation. He frequented the Egyptian Hall, a performance and exhibition hall, where the famous illusionist David Devant performed and introduced him to his art. In exchange, Méliès makes him his sets.

Back in Paris in 1885, he worked in his father's factory and married Eugénie Genin, a pianist of Dutch origin, a friend of the maternal family and who provided him with a comfortable dowry. At the same time, he gave prestidigitation sessions in brasseries, at the Vivienne gallery and at the fantastic cabinet of the Grévin museum, while being a journalist and caricaturist in the satirical and anti-boulangist newspaper, La Griffe, of which his cousin Adolphe Méliès was the editor. He signs the pseudonym Geo Smile!

Determined to make a living from his art, Georges Méliès sold his shares in the family business to his brother in 1888 in order to buy the Théâtre des Soirées Fantastiques, commonly known as "Théâtre Robert-Houdin" and located on Boulevard des Italiens. It was Léonie Munier, the widow of the son of the famous French illusionist Eugène Robert-Houdin, who had managed it since her husband's disappearance in 1871. Méliès collected the equipment for the Fantastical Evenings there, including a dozen automatons built by Robert-Houdin. Having become the director of the theatre, he staged prestidigitation shows there which he presented as Monsieur Loyal. In 1891, he created the Académie de prestidigitation which was transformed in 1893 into the Syndicat des Illusionnistes, in order to legitimize the presence of itinerant magicians working in the streets, then considered as Roma by the police. He remains its president for thirty years.

The 1st film studio in France in Montreuil

On 28th December 1895, Georges Méliès was invited to the first public screening of the Lumière brothers' cinematograph. He immediately offers the two brothers to buy their camera. Their father, Antoine Lumière, tried to dissuade him, arguing that since this invention had little future, Méliès could ruin himself. Anyway, the two brothers refused and Auguste, the eldest of the two said to Méliès: "Thank me, I'll save you ruin, because this device, a simple scientific curiosity, has no commercial future!" .

After this refusal, Méliès built his own camera, founded a production company, Star Film and screened his first film in his theater. His first films are classic and resemble those of the Lumière brothers with scenes of daily life but also his magic tricks that he films. Méliès gradually abandoned conjuring and the Robert-Houdin theater served as a screening room for his own films. In 1897, for 50 centimes, the viewer could attend a three-quarters of an hour session to see, for example, The Conjurer and Tabarin's Hat or The Haunted Castle, the first "great film" measuring sixty meters instead of an average of seventeen previously.

In order to renew the genre and arouse the interest of the public, Méliès had the idea no longer of shooting scenes of daily life but of producing fiction. This idea, born by chance arose when he viewed with a technician a street scene with an omnibus shot on the main boulevards. During the filming, the crank got stuck so that during the viewing, instead of the omnibus, it is a hearse which was passing by that appears. His technician is about to throw away the film but Méliès realizes the comic motivation of the incident and decides to exploit "cinema in its spectacular theatrical way".

As filming outdoors is not easy, Georges Méliès imagines the creation of a large studio where we could take shots of outdoor scenes. He invests the paternal house which had been acquired in Montreuil in 1860, at a place called "le Bout de la ville". It was in this half-hectare property, at François-Debergue street that he built his two studios, the first in France: A in 1897 and B in 1907. All of his films, approximately five hundred are colorized by hand, frame by frame.

Building A, constructed of glass and iron has the same proportions as the hall of the Robert-Houdin theatre. Oriented north-south in order to capture the maximum amount of light, it measures 17 meters in length by 7 meters in width and 6 meters in height. A stage 5 meters deep completes the set. The first sequences shot in building A in Montreuil reconstruct fake news scenes, such as the eruption of Mount Pelé, dramas, even advertisements. But, quickly, the magical scenes, which will make the success of Méliès, arrive. The filming of Voyage dans la lune, inspired by Jules Verne's novel, From the Earth to the Moon, was completed in July 1902. This film broke all records: length (260 meters), shooting time (three months) and cost price (10,000 francs). The film was such a commercial success that it was pirated many times, notably in the United States by Thomas Edison's firm.

In building B, Méliès piles up all sorts of very cumbersome objects: helicopter, dirigible balloon, tramway, locomotive. He built his sets there and invented his first special effects films. He plays himself and turns his family, his neighbors and his friends but also actors, amateurs recruited in the street, music hall artists, dancers from the Châtelet. Méliès films in front of painted sets, largely inspired by the magic shows of his theatre. This practice earned him the nickname "mage of Montreuil". He produced short stories reconstituted in the studio (his masterpiece being The Coronation (or the Coronation) of King Edward VII presented to the court of the United Kingdom in 1902. The fee for the actors is the same for all: a louis d'or plus lunch. Unlike his contemporaries, he does not work in close-ups, but mainly wide shots with a fixed camera and a predilection for studio shooting. In the General and International Directory of Photography which appeared on 15th January 1907, Georges Méliès presents the Montreuil studio as a photographic workshop and a theater with machinery. He explains how to make a film based on a script, build sets (in wood and canvas, all in grisaille because the colors don't go well in black and white). He also gives other indications there such as the average cost of a film, but does not reveal how he carries out his special effects in order to preserve all the mystery in his works.

From decline to ruin: the end of the Montreuil studios

In 1908, Films d'Art, the Laffite brothers' production company released their first film. This is a historical film The Assassination of the Duc de Guise, which profoundly marked the film industry by launching the vogue for historical films which would go out of fashion in other genres. Faced with this competition, Star Film interrupted its production in 1910 and the following year, Pathé took control of the production company. Georges Méliès returns to prestidigitation and performed at the Alhambra as well as in Belgium and Italy. Pathé picks him up at the Robert-Houdin theater and pushes him to make a new film. Hallucinations of Baron Münchhausen was released in 1911, then The Conquest of the Pole, the next year. But, Méliès can no longer attract the general public to him and film rental companies refuse to take his works.

In 1913, Méliès lost his wife and was left alone with his two children, Georgette, born in 1888 and André, born in 1901. At the dawn of the 1914 war, he found himself in a very delicate financial situation. The commercial failures of his last films provoked a dispute between Méliès and Pathé which resulted in a moratorium decreed by the government in 1914: the Robert-Houdin Theater, which had become a cinema with prestidigitation screenings on Sundays only, and the Montreuil studios are closed. Georges Méliès is ruined. To get out of the financial impasse, he thought of selling Robert-Houdin's automatons but in the end, transformed studio B into a neighborhood cinema in 1914 and the following year, into a theater for the benefit of Montreuil hospital.

From 1917 to 1923, studio B offered operettas and comic operas, but the receipts were not enough to pay off the debts to Pathé. Méliès is forced to sell the Montreuil property and close the Robert-Houdin theater. Desperate Méliès destroyed his life's work: "All the boxes containing the films were sold to fairground merchants and disappeared. Méliès himself, in a moment of anger, burned his stock in Montreuil" says Madeleine Malthête-Méliès, her little girl. His films are either destroyed, in particular melted down to extract the silver or sold: recovered by weight and transformed into celluloid for the heel pads of shoes intended for hairy people! More than half a million titles disappear.

The studios have (almost) completely disappeared since 1947

In 1925, Méliès reunited with Jehanne d'Alcy, his favorite actress, who ran a toy and candy store in the hall of Montparnasse station. He marries her and sits down with her behind the shop counter. It was there that Léon Druhot, the director of Ciné-Journal, found him in 1929 and brought him out of oblivion. Sponsored by Louis Lumière, he received the Legion of Honor on 22nd October 1931. The following year, he moved into one of the apartments at the Château d'Orly, the retirement home of the Mutuelle du Cinéma, where he ends his life with Jeanne d'Alcy. He died there in 1938.

Georges Méliès is buried in the Père-Lachaise cemetery. Despite the efforts of Henri Langlois, the two Montreuil studios were destroyed around 1947. Two years earlier, in 1945, Langlois had produced a photo report on the site, which remains the only remaining testimony of these two buildings. Today, the former family property of Méliès, 3 rue François-Debergue, houses La Parole errante, an international center for creation based in Montreuil since 1986, under the direction of Armand Gatti, poet, author, playwright, director, screenwriter and director. Opposite at 4bis, if you bother to raise your head, a panel from the old decoration store, an old wooden hall is still visible. This is the last trace of the former film studios of Georges Méliès.

The Montreuil cinema bears the name of Méliès.

Wander freely around Montreuil or take a guided tour through photogenic areas of Paris that have been used as sets for many films.

Also read

The cinemas of Seine-Saint-Denis
The city of cinema and the old power station of Saint-Denis

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